Even without the good notices its lead and supporting players garnered, “The Contender” is a contender based on their names alone.First, there is Joan Allen, whom it seems obligatory to buzz about in any year she’s worked. Allen has received two nominations in the last six years — for “Nixon” (1995) and “The Crucible” (1996) — and her command of a complex role combining strength and vulnerability could curry favor again with Academy voters. What’s more,
she’s aided by a stellar supporting cast that includes longtime award fave Jeff Bridges in a subtle perf as the U.S. president. Bridges has been nommed three times by the Academy for “Starman” (1984), “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974) and “The Last Picture Show” (1971).The hopes of “The Contender’s” other contender, Gary Oldman, have been fading a bit. Early talk was good — especially when he disappeared so far into his role as a right-wing senator that people didn’t recognize him. But while a critic’s darling, Oldman has never been nominated. His public feud with director Rod Lurie may also dampen ardor for his elusive turn. What’s more, the seeming brilliance of releasing the pic a week before the Presidential election has faded with the hoped-for bump in enthusiasm becoming more of a bump in the road as auds tire of the lengthy Bush-Gore saga. And while “The Contender” does tackle important, sweeping issues — which the Academy likes — politically specific films have never been big with voters. Probably the most oft-cited example of which is when “All the President’s Men” lost to “Rocky” for best picture in 1976. More recent instances include “Reds” being passed over for “Chariots of Fire” in 1981 and “JFK” being beaten by “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991. Then again, one could argue “Gandhi’s” win in 1982 and “The Last Emperor’s” reign in 1987 show it can be done. Last year’s race provides what could be a less-than-encouraging precedent for the film. Based on early buzz, 1999’s politically-tinged “The Insider” caught raves for strong lead and supporting performances from Russell Crowe, Al Pacino and Christopher Plummer. The pic earned seven nominations, including picture, adapted screenplay and director, but played to relatively empty houses, and Oscar does not look kindly on flaccid box office. There seems to be a similar perception about “The Contender.” DreamWorks, however, calls it a winner, noting the film has grossed $17.5 million, after being acquired for $9 million. Whether Academy voters hear that message remains to be seen.